Food is undeniably sexy. We use lustful language like food porn, mouthfeel, and foodgasm to describe luscious dishes. Everyone knows eggplant and peach emojis aren’t usually referring to fresh produce. We’re deeply aware of the implications of eating hot dogs, bananas, or cream-filled donuts in public. And don’t even get me started on aphrodisiacs. Food and sex have intertwined throughout human history, from Roman olisbo-kollix (AKA breadstick dildos) to the iconic peach scene in Call Me By Your Name.

Why is food so sexy?

Both food and sex are tied to critical biological functions — survival and reproduction. They’re inextricably linked to cravings, desires, and consumption.

“Food engages all our senses, so it’s quite natural that it’s often linked to sensuality and sex,” said Dr. Emily Contois, associate professor of Media Studies at The University of Tulsa and author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender & Power Collide in Food Media & Culture. “They’re twin appetites in some ways.”

Social media has only intensified food's natural sexiness.

“‘Food porn’ or ‘gastro porn’ emerged as a specific word and concept in the 1970s to name a phenomenon that had been around much longer — that even just looking at food elicits desire,” said Contois. “The heyday of Instagram made food porn an even more prominent part of everyday life, filling feeds with innumerable photos of seductively tantalizing dishes.”

What makes food sexy?

Asparagus, eggplant, bananas, sausages. Oysters, pomegranates, grapefruit, cantaloupe. I’m sure you get my drift, but to put it bluntly, foods that look like genitalia are often associated with sex.

sweet, banana, vegetable
Jenny Guffy

Texture also plays a role.

“Foods that have a Jello-y or smooth or thick liquid kind of texture…at some subliminal level could be associated with human sexual contact because there needs to be lubrication and smoothness,” said Dr. Leanna Wolfe, anthropologist and author of 177 Lovers and Counting: My Life as a Sex Researcher. “When you think about it, foods that are decidedly rough and/or crunchy or hard don't sound as erotic as foods that are liquid and smooth.”

Particularly seductive foods may be considered aphrodisiacs (which we will get to next) or used to convey sexual messages. For example, I'm pretty sure "Watermelon Sugar" isn’t just about Harry Styles' love of fresh fruit. 

What are aphrodisiacs?

Aphrodisiacs are foods and beverages consumed to (supposedly) stimulate sexual desire.

“There's all kinds of ideas about what might be an aphrodisiac,” said Wolfe.

In American culture, we often think of chocolate, oysters, and red wine. “But a lot of this is embedded in cultural ideas rather than absolute physiology,” Wolfe continued.

chocolate, wine
Kristine Mahan

Here’s an interesting cultural idea: beans were once considered an aphrodisiac. Yes, the kind that makes you fart. According to food historian Tasha Marks, “windy meats” (beans and peas) were often prescribed to men experiencing sexual difficulties in the early modern era because it was thought that the “wind” (flatulence) would inflate the penis and cause an erection. It’s certainly a thought.

But historical aphrodisiacs also have a darker side. Contois noted that her colleagues who have written about aphrodisiacs “found a distinctly misogynistic framing throughout history — that is, aphrodisiacs have long been another way that men attempt to control women, sexually and otherwise, within patriarchal societies.” For example, the administering of aphrodisiacs meant to increase a woman's libido could be a way to enforce gender norms and regulate women’s sexualities.

Nowadays, we know that there’s very little scientific evidence supporting aphrodisiacs, and most people simply try them as a fun and harmless experiment. But the placebo effect can be powerful.

“We, as a species, are capable of believing all kinds of things,” said Wolfe. “And if we believe them hard enough, we may come up with evidence for why they're true.”

And hey, if it works, it works.

As Marks put it, “if you have a dirty enough mind, anything can be an aphrodisiac.”

How can food convey sexual messages?

Food can convey subtle (or not-so-subtle) sexual messages. An upside-down pineapple, for instance, is known to symbolize the swinger lifestyle. The origins of this fruitful signal are unclear, but it has become especially infamous in cruise culture. If a couple displays an upside-down pineapple on their cabin door, it may be a sign that they are open to some casual non-monogamy. It gives pineapple upside-down cake a whole new meaning. And then, of course, there are emojis.

Full disclosure: I have a bone to pick with the eggplant emoji. Eggplants are hardly the most phallic food emoji. What about the classic banana, or the baguette, or heck, even the ginger? So, I was delighted to learn that the eggplant did not acquire its current *associations* until after the eggplant emoji was introduced to American audiences in 2010. (The peach emoji was also introduced in 2010, but peaches have a long history of sexual innuendo, going back to their use as a sexual metaphor in Renaissance paintings; plus, the peach is clearly the best emoji representation of a butt.) 

Prior to the introduction of the eggplant emoji, most Americans only associated these delicious purple nightshades with eggplant parm and baba ghanoush. But, by 2011, the eggplant emoji was used to mean penis on Twitter, and in 2015, Instagram banned the eggplant emoji and related hashtags from its search function, as the implicit sexual symbol was so often tied to explicit sexual content. This led to a #FreetheEggplant campaign, which was mostly successful, although #EggplantFriday is still banned.

How did the previously innocent eggplant become the emoji representation of the member so quickly? Some say eggplant’s relative obscurity, at least in America, made it the perfect blank slate for sexual innuendo. Plus, the emoji’s virile shape and color (and rather generous proportions) certainly don’t hurt. And once the phallic association caught on, there was no going back.

The eggplant emoji will forever be associated with male genitalia in the minds of most Americans. Some predicted that the croissant, baguette, and cucumber emoji would “out-penis the eggplant” after their release in 2016, but this obviously hasn’t come to fruition. The inescapable innuendo of the eggplant emoji can be quite frustrating for those who actually want to text (or even just talk) about eggplants, leading some to propose the creation of a new eggplant emoji that is only associated with the delicious and versatile vegetable.

From phallic breadsticks and aphrodisiac beans, to eggplant emojis and sexy chefs, food has been a powerful sex symbol throughout history. These natural bodily appetites are consistent sources of desire, discomfort, pleasure, and satisfaction for most humans, and as history shows, the temptation to draw parallels between food and sex is impossible to resist. Bon Appétit!